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Who Needs Healing?

May 13, 2007

Glynn Cardy


The Man in the Iron Tank

The late James K. Baxter wrote:


There was a man who decided that life was too corrupt. He bought a large corrugated iron tank, and furnished it with the necessities of life – a bed, books, food, electric light and heating, his bible and prayerbook. There he lived a blameless life without interruption from the world. But there was one great hardship.


Morning and evening, without fail, volleys of bullets would rip through the walls of his tank. The man learnt to lie on the floor to avoid being shot. Nevertheless, he did at times sustain wounds, and the iron walls were pierced with many holes that let in the wind and the daylight. He plugged up the holes. He prayed against the unknown marksman, asking God to intervene.


By degrees he began to use the bullet holes for a positive purpose. He would gaze out through one hole or another, and watch the people passing, the children flying kites, the lovers making love, the wind in the trees... He would forget himself in observing these things.


The day came when the tank rusted and fell to pieces. He walked out of it with little regret. There was a man standing with a gun outside. "Why have you been persecuting me?" asked the man from the tank. The other man laid down the gun and smiled. "I am not your enemy", he said. And the man from the tank could see that there were scars on the marksman's hands and feet, and these scars were shining like the sun.



John 5:1-9


“Do you want to be made well?” asked Jesus of the man beside the Bethzatha pool.


A strange question one might think to ask someone who had been ill for 38 years. Why wouldn’t he want to be healed?


In Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, a clever parody of the Gospel, there is a sketch where a man approaches Brian yelling out: “Alms for an ex-leper.” Brian inquires about the ‘ex’ bit. To which the man replies, “Some do-gooder came along and healed me – took my whole livelihood away.” With the magic of humour the Monty Python team ask an important question about healing, namely: ‘Are we prepared to bear the cost of it?’


I don’t believe that God endows particular people with the ability to go around laying their hands on those who are sick, disabled, and terminally ill, in order to instantaneously and supernaturally heal them.


Medical anthropology distinguishes between a disease and an illness. A disease is between me, my doctor, and a bug. Illness is between me, my family, neighbours and society. Disease refers to the physical effects; illness refers to the social effects. AIDS, for example, is both a disease – affecting the individual, and an illness - how society relates to that individual.


Jesus healed illness by refusing to accept the ritual uncleanness and social rejection that accompanied disease in his time and culture. He forced others to either reject him from society or to include the diseased within it as well. He aligned himself with the outsiders in order to challenge the whole power structure of insider/outsider relationships.


I don’t think that Jesus supernaturally healed diseases. However, I do think there are people who by nature are therapeutic, and Jesus was one of them. I also think there is a lot about medicine we still don’t know and so-called alternative medicine should not be dismissed out of hand. Further, I think that prayer is often helpful and can affect both physical and social healing.


On the other hand I am aware that people who are sick, and their families, are very vulnerable to charlatans and religious quackery. I am very sceptical about the antics of religious faith-healers, like Benny Hinn who has a billboard down the street. They invariably fail to answer why some are healed and some are not, and why some experience so-called ‘healing’ at the time and then regress shortly afterwards. If we believe that God is love, consistently wants the best for us, and can suspend the natural laws of the universe to effect that, then one needs to ask why some of the most loving and saintly people never heal and continue to suffer, and why some of the worst rogues seem to get a miraculous reprieve. Benny of course, like many infamous faith-healers believes that God requires that he live as opulently as possible, including having a $49 million jet.


Neither Jesus nor the man at the Bethzatha pools had financial resources of that kind. The latter’s only property seemed to be a mat. Yet this healing story is about cost. In support of his disability the man had located himself in a disabled community. He had little if any options. The community around the Bethzatha pools was one of the few safe places where he could be. Disabled people were considered to be not only contagious but also religiously damned. God had allegedly cursed them. Therefore the so-called ‘able’ community rejected them. The five pools of Bethzatha were refuge for them, segregated from the mainstream, and a place where hope could be nurtured.


The hope however was about healing the ‘unclean’ physical disability and re-entering ‘clean’ society. Jesus came offering a different hope. Jesus deliberately confronted the illness of society that divided people into clean and unclean, able and disabled, pure and impure. And he did it deliberately on the one day of the week when the rule-makers told him he couldn’t: the Sabbath.


Jesus addressed the illness that had entrapped the man. Jesus invited him to get up, on his lame leg, and hobble with him out of the pool area and into so-called clean, able, pure society. Jesus invited him to be a collaborator, a co-conspirator, in dismantling the mindset that divides off people one from another; and dismantling too the structures that such a mindset creates.


Jesus invited the man, like he invites us, to join with Jesus’ vision of radical egalitarianism. A vision where the boundaries of class, race, gender, sexual orientation, ability and health – to name a few – are dismantled so that insiders and outsiders sit and eat together and resources are shared.


The man at the pool needed to consider the cost. James K. Baxter’s insightful story about the guy in the iron tank helps us to understand cost. The tank was secure, certain, and comfortable. So too was the poolside community. The marksman who shot holes into the tank was considered an enemy, not a liberator. At the poolside, the invitation of Jesus had to be assessed. Was Jesus an enemy or a liberator?


The challenge to the man, and the cost, was to walk into confrontation. It wasn’t going to be all nice, safe, and predictable – like life in the tank. It was going to be awkward, hard, and scary. Instead of sitting safe amongst the excluded waiting for some Benny Hinn, he was being asked to get up, use that lame leg, and walk beside Jesus into the so-called ‘able’ community and challenge their prejudice. He wasn’t going to be welcomed. Sure he might find a few allies but generally he was going to be labelled a radical, an anarchist, a parasite, and told to go back to the pool. Only when he could behave himself, by staying where he’s told, then ‘able’ society would relate to him civilly.


Those who believe Jesus was a faith-healer who cured the man’s disability have a problem. They have to believe that God physically intervenes to cure some and not others. This belief, however, apart from being irrational and immoral does not critique society at all. The disability is the man’s problem, not the society’s. The cure is fixing the man, not society. ‘There is nothing wrong with society,’ say the advocates of Jesus the faith-healer, ‘What is wrong is the man’s disability’. They paint Jesus as a healer of individuals, not a revolutionary out to change the world. He’s safer that way.


I believe Jesus confronted the deep social, political, and theological illness of society. This illness isolated and excluded those who were sick, different, and foreign. This illness created segregated poolside communities, dumping grounds for the tainted, Bantustans for the disabled... Jesus spent his life shooting holes in the philosophical and theological rationale that under-girded such segregation. He sought to bring the powerless to the powerful in order to question the nature and distribution of power. He sought to bring the labellers of illness to those so labelled in order that labels were lifted from the backs of the excluded. Jesus physically challenged and confronted the system of oppression.


There was a cost. One who calls the disabled ‘able’, the sick ‘well’, the feared ‘friends’, the useless ‘disciples’, and the excluded ‘family’ is a threat to society’s understandings of normality, decency and order. Is it any wonder he was crucified?


“Do you want to be made well?” Jesus asked the man at the pool. The question reaches out across time, place, and culture to us. Are you and I willing to bear the cost of following Jesus’ agenda and vision? It’s a good question and the answer isn’t easy.

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